Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs (US - DVD R1)
This is not what Gabe was expecting after the beauty of Bender's Big Score
Bender’s Big Score ended with a giant rip in space-time, caused indirectly by Bender himself. Since then Fry has found a new girlfriend, who happens to be dating four other guys, Kiff and Amy have been married, and Bender has begun to feel left out of his best friend’s life. Eventually left heartbroken by his inability to share his love with four other men, Fry journeys through the universal rift, and brings something colossal back with him.
I watched the first Futurama straight to video movie, Bender’s Big Score, with cautious optimism. At the time I had been singed by obvious drops in quality from a triumphantly returning Family Guy, and an ever drooping Simpsons (including a frightfully average theatrical movie), and was beginning to wonder if perhaps the cancellation of my favourite prime time animated series may not have been a blessing in disguise. I was pleasantly surprised with the film, which started off a bit flat, but picked up and wound up a funny and touching, mostly original long episode.
So when going into Futurama movie number two (of four), The Beast with a Billion Backs, my expectations were high, and my assumption was this feature would have at least an equal standing with the first, slightly uneven feature. It can be hard to judge one’s disappointment when spirits are so high, for instance, X-Men 3 isn’t a terrible film, but I was so personally crushed by the fact that it couldn’t stand in the same league with X-Men 2 that I rather unfairly despised it. The Beast with a Billion Backs is a disappointment, plain and simple, but exactly how much of a disappointment is something difficult to put into words.
My first and largest issue with this new film is its continuity compared to the previous film (not the four season’s worth of episodes). Bender’s Big Score has a lot of narrative and emotional closure, and looking back I realize it could’ve easily been the series capper. With the exception of the universal tear that appeared as a cliff-hanger at the end of Big Score, Billion Backs more or less ignores any of the narrative and emotional conclusions that rounded out the previous film. Even new characters are ignored, leading one to assume that all four films have been made independent of each other, and are possibly meant as standalone features.
Even assuming fans are able to go along with this flow and treat the four films as separate entities, there’s the very real problem of a lack of yucks in Billion Backs. Again, I started the film expecting to like it quite a bit, so I was quite susceptible to less than platinum comedy. Even filled with a genuine want to giggle, I found myself blankly staring for the majority of the film. The best jokes, really the only jokes that work this time around, are the large, absurd story elements. Pretty much every slapstick and verbal gag falls flat.
The biggest shock of Big Score wasn’t the comedy, but the poignancy, which I was afraid would be lost upon the creators after too many years off the clock. Billion Backs is bursting with attempts at deep and meaningful pathos, especially in the final act, but for some reason things just don’t work. Perhaps the scale is just too big to appreciate. One can’t discredit the writers for aiming past the moon this time around, and covering some big emotional issues, but in the process the character seems to have been lost.
Some stuff still works. The animation is the best in the series history, and the voice work struggles valiantly through some of the swampier plot elements. The scale is a hindrance, but the failed ideas are interesting ones, and the majority of the visual representations of these failed ideas are breathtaking. In some strange way this may be the closest anyone in any audio/visual media has gotten to creating sequences of epic Lovecraftian mayhem, and that’s got to count for something.
I gave the last Futurama film a bit of a pass in the A/V department because I knew that my screener was a burned copy. I’m not going to do that this time. I know that two layers worth of info have been compressed onto a single layer, but I really have no way of knowing exactly how much better the final product must look. Fox is so paranoid about piracy that they ignore this part of the DVD reviewing process. Perhaps they’re right, and everyone who reads this assumes that the disc will look good, but what if there was a glaring error, shouldn’t my job be to warn consumers? Anyway, this burned disc is colourful, but wrought with compression noise that I’m sure will be corrected by the final release.
The single layer compression doesn’t affect the Dolby Digital 5.1 track as aggressively, though the bass channel bleeds a bit. The space battle this time around is a bit smaller than that of Bender’s Big Score, but the tentacle attack scene is filled with sumptuous surround encompassing effects. There aren’t any musical moments, montage or singing scenes, this time, and score in general takes a subtle back seat for most of the film. I caught no errors in directional movement or distortion throughout the entire track.
Our slightly sizeable extras begins with another satisfying and entertaining commentary track featuring producers Matt Groening Claudia Katz, Lee Supercinski and David X. Cohen, actors Billy West, John DiMaggio and Maurice LaMarche, writer Michael Rowe, and director Peter Avanzino. The track lacks the full bore excitement of the last track, which represented years of waiting on the part of the participants, but the enthusiasm is still pretty thick. Cohen and Rowe acknowledge a lot of the problems I have with the film, but don’t really bother defending them, so I’m a little torn.
For those of us who never purchased or played the Futurama video game, included here are almost thirty minutes of cut-scenes under the title Futurama: The Lost Adventure. The cut-scene flow is a bit awkward, like a series of stitched together cut-scenes rather than an episode of the show, but the plot is cute, and on the whole the ‘episode’ is entertaining. Also entertaining is the included commentary track, featuring the same folks as feature commentary.
Next is a storyboard animatic covering ‘part one’ of the film, running about twenty-two minutes and featuring a few deleted and alternate jokes. This is followed by eight deleted and alternate scenes. These include an animatic version of the alternate opening, a finished and extended version of Fry and Colleen’s first meeting, animatic versions of the St. Asimov day parade, Zapp’s two cents at the scientist’s meeting (both also featured on the part one animatic), and Amy’s attempts at hooking Fry up with a friend, and a slightly more finished animatic of Leela killing Scruffy the Janitor.
Then we’ve got three featurettes. ‘Meet Yivo!’ is a behind the scenes joke interview with voice actor and comedian David Cross, complete with film clips, and it runs two minutes. ‘A Brief History of Deathball’ is exactly what it sounds like, a description of the process behind creating the Deathball sequences with director Peter Avanzino, mostly made up of design sketches, which runs another brief couple minutes. The final featurette is called a blooper reel, but is really just a montage of footage from a voice recording session, which also runs two minutes.
The disc is rounded out with a four minute look at the film’s 3D models featuring two animator’s commentary, and a sneak peak at the next Futurama adventure, Bender’s Game (a joke title that sci-fi fans should get right away). It appears that the next film is a Lord of the Rings spoof, and unfortunately the preview doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, as it’s mostly made up of not particularly funny jokes.
I’m disappointed by The Beast with a Billion Backs, but respect the creators for trying something new and original, and still prefer it to most every animated comedy now in circulation (save Home Movies, Metalocalypse, Frisky Dingo and Venture Bros.). Fans of the series will still want to by it, watch it, and stick it on the shelf, but they should probably go in with lowered expectations. Passing-fans might want to give it a rent if they’re curious. Non-fans can probably skip it.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 24th June 2008
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Extras: Cast and Crew Commentary, 'Futurama: The Lost Adventure' with Commentary, Animatics, Deleted Scenes, 'Meet Yivo', 'A Brief History of Death Ball', Blooper Reel, 3D Models, Bender's Game Preview
Easter Egg: No
Director: Peter Avanzino
Cast: John DiMaggio, Katey Sagal, Billy West, Brittany Murphy, Dan Castellaneta, David Cross, Phil LaMarr
Length: 89 minutes
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